There is vinegar, then there is balsamic vinegar, but the best is the traditional balsamic vinegar.
This extraordinary vinegar was invented centuries ago as a medicinal balsam for the exclusive use of kings, emperors and nobility. Only privileged drug stores were allowed to sell it.
Over time, traditional balsamic vinegar found its well-deserved role in gastronomy. It enriches many Emiglian specialties, and enhances the flavours of salads, roasted root vegetables, pastas, meats and Parimigiano Reggiano cheese.
There is a distinct difference between traditional balsamic vinegar and simple vinegar called balsamic. The price difference of the two should be a good guide. The first is far more expensive than the second and incomparably more flavourful too.
Proud families produce traditional balsamic vinegar in small quantities in their attics, and each operation follows techniques handed down from generation to generation.
In olden days many families hid their barrels in attics to protect them from thieves and envious competitors. Some families still use barrel sets which were first used more than a century ago, and a few families own and use aging barrels first use in the 18th century.
The first written documentation of traditional balsamic vinegar dates back to 1046, when Henry III, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, on his way to Rome for coronation, stopped in Piacenza, and wrote Marquis of Tuscany Boniface, asking for a gift of famous and special vinegar had heard about.
Twelfth, thirteenth and fourteenth century historical documents state the production of balsamic vinegar in Reggio Emilia and Scandiano.
During the Renaissance, balsamic vinegar
was a precious condiment on the tables of the Duke of Este, but when Ercole I Duke of Ferrara was declared the ruler in 1471, the fortunes of balsamic vinegar took a turn for the better and continued through the rule of Duchy of Modena, Reggio Emilia and Massa up to 1859.
The Traditional Balsamic vinegar
from Reggio Emilia is never overbearing, possesses a sweet but assertive aroma, rounds out dishes, and enhances the flavour of any suitable food.
This unique vinegar starts as ripe grapes (Trebbiano, Occhio di Gatto, Spergola and Berzemino grown in a well defined area of Reggio Emilia). After pressing, the juice is boiled down, inoculated with special yeasts to ferment it to 5 – 6 percent ABV.
Following this procedure, the liquid is poured into the first barrel of a set of barrels, which has to have been used quality vinegar for at least one year.
Traditional balsamic vinegar must be aged a minimum of 12 years in a set of barrels. The smallest and the by law required set consists of three progressively smaller barrels (oak, chestnut, mulberry, cherry, ash and juniper are recommended and almost always used by producers who respect tradition).
The largest barrel allowed is of 50-litre capacity, and always filled only 4/5th along the mother vinegar to encourage for acetobacter evolution and proliferation.
After one year, the young vinegar is decanted into the second largest barrel. All other barrels in the set are topped up starting from the smallest and last with the next up, and the last receives the fresh must.
After 12 years of aging, the balsamic vinegar is marketed as Traditional, and after 25 years as extra vecchio.
Before bottling, the balsamic vinegar is subjected to an organoleptic examination by a panel of experts and must conform to following criteria:
- Dark brown shiny clear colour
- Syrupy consistency
- Pleasantly acid aroma displaying the smell of the types of wood used
- Pleasantly sweet and sour, balanced of all organoleptic characteristics
French chefs prefer to use ingredients of their soil, but when it comes to using traditional balsamic vinegar or Parmiggiano Reggiano, they always use the original. In fact European gastronomic rules and regulations stipulate the use of AOC (Appellation of Origin) ingredients as advertised.
When a menu states traditional balsamic vinegar that is the one the chef must use. The same applies to every menu item with specific claims i.e Bresse chicken, Dover sole, Scottish salmon, asparagus from Lauris. Government inspectors visit high-end restaurants form time to time to verify the veracity of claims made on menus.
Traditional balsamic vinegar is truly unique, rare, and expensive, but the taste more than compensates the high cost.